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What do BP’s problems and Chevrolet account switch have in common?

Arguably they both point to the occasional, but persistent, problem of doing business in the US.

BP is receiving a terrible kicking from various American legislators and government types, starting with president Obama. So it should, you may say, as it’s spilling all that oil into the Gulf of Mexico, the latest in a number of huge environmental cock-ups.

New General Motors CMO Joel Ewanick has rudely turfed Publicis from the $600m Chevrolet account and moved the account to Omnicom-owned Goodby Silverstein before the French-owned agency’s staff had even got their magic markers out (or fired up their Macs).

So what’s the connection?

Is it that BP, British-owned of course, is an interloper in American-owned big oil and hasn’t been forgiven for snapping up the likes of Amoco a few years ago? So might there be a secondary agenda, to whit that the Americans would like BP off their patch?

And our friend Joel Ewanick, even though he made his reputation at Hyundai, may have thought that America’s flagship car producer (albeit one that has just come out of bankruptcy) should have an American-owned agency on its case?

He clearly had other reasons of course; he worked successfully with Goodby at Hyundai and wants to hit the ground running at GM with people he knows. Also Publicis is Renault’s agency in most places and Chevy competes in the same sector. Agency types would also point out that Publicis, like Havas, benefits from something approaching a stranglehold on big French clients, encouraged by the French government some would also say.

The BP issue is clearly of far more import than an account switch. But advertising and marketing is a massive business in the US. My chum Stuart Smith pointed out recently that the Chevy account would have delivered as much moolah on its own as Publicis’ entire UK income.

European companies very often come unstuck in the US where, as I said, they don’t welcome interlopers. Back in the mists of time Midland Bank came spectacularly unstuck with its purchase of US bank Crocker, shortly to be followed by the brothers’ Saatchi & Saatchi, then the biggest agency group in the world, imploding after it paid $500m for Ted Bates.

In the 1980s numerous other UK marcomms companies hit the buffers after they unwisely spent the proceeds of their public flotations on American investments. WPP almost came unstuck after it bought Ogilvy & Mather whose British-born founder David Ogilvy referred to Martin Sorrell as an “odious little shit.” The two subsequently kissed and made up.

And, in case you think the above is a load of tosh, none other than sainted actress Helen Mirren recently criticised the Americans for always casting the English as villains. Goes back to the Boston Tea Party apparently.

Our case rests.

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BP chevrolet general motors Joel Ewanick publicis

About Stephen Foster

Stephen is a former editor of Marketing Week and London Evening Standard advertising columnist. He wrote City Republic for Brand Republic and is a partner in communications consultancy The Editorial Partnership.
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